How does Priestley communicate his political views through the character of Mr. Birling in the play An Inspector Calls?

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gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Priestley, a convinced socialist, uses the character of Mr Birling to express his own political views in an interesting way. Mr Birling is anything but a socialist, being a successful, middle-class ‘hard-headed business man’ as he says himself, chiefly interested in making money, looking out for himself, furthering his own social and political standing and caring not a jot for anyone outside of his own family and friends. His ethics are diametrically opposed to those of socialism – espoused by Priestley himself - which stresses the concept of social responsibility, the importance of looking out for others, of working together for the common good with the stronger helping the weak and needy.

Priestley lets Birling damn himself out of his own mouth at the very beginning of the play, as he makes a solemn speech on the occasion of his daughter Sheila’s engagement to a business acquaintance, Gerald Croft, at a family dinner. This speech reveals how utterly complacent and clueless Birling really is, as he confidently holds forth on the prosperous state of the nation, turning a blind eye to class conflict and the possibility of war (the play is set in 1912, barely two years before the First World War). He simply does not care about things that he feels do not personally affect him, and social problems concern him not at all.

Birling's smugness and righteous self-belief is neatly conveyed in the image of the Titanic which he refers to in his speech -  the supposedly unsinkable ship which headed blindly into disaster. Birling is similarly shown to have an entirely misguided self-belief and sense of security. At this point he is quite unaware that he himself is on the brink of exposure, and very possibly social ruin as the mysterious Inspector Goole arrives and starts questioning the whole family mercilessly on the part they have each played in the appalling suicide of a young working-class woman who was left friendless, penniless, without any kind of moral support. The younger Birlings, Sheila and Eric, become genuinely remorseful as they realize the terrible consequences of their actions, but their mother and father and Gerald do not. The play thus reveals the destructive effects of selfishness and lack of compassion for others as embodied in men like Birling – a man who stands for everything that his creator opposed.

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An Inspector Calls

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